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Politico has an excellent breakdown on the US Supreme Court’s hearing of oral arguments inn a case that will decide whether SNAP retail sales data is confidential or can and should be made public.

The story says that “The court will ultimately decide what constitutes confidential business information as it relates to public access to government records. Retailers have argued that store-level SNAP sales data essentially amounts to a trade secret and releasing it would harm retailers.

“The Argus Leader, a newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D., has argued the public has a right to know how and where taxpayer dollars are being spent in the $65 billion program … The long-running fight began in 2011 when the Argus Leader filed a lawsuit after USDA denied its Freedom of Information Act request, which had sought retail sales data for five years of store-level SNAP purchases. For awhile, the department fought the request in court.

“But in 2017 USDA decided not to appeal a judge’s ruling that the government had failed to show that releasing the data would cause real competitive harm to retailers. At that point, the Food Marketing Institute, which represents major retailers, stepped in and eventually succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to take the case.”

The case, Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, “could end up having much broader implications for what is considered confidential financial and business information in the context of FOIA requests,” Politico writes. While the media maintains that the data - which essentially is about where $65 billion in taxpayer money is going - could be used “to search for trends and write about which companies were profiting from the program,” FMI maintains that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests “are meant to shed light on government activities, not the sales trends of private business.”

The paper’s request wasn’t capricious. The Wall Street Journal notes that “the paper had set its sights on ‘retailer trafficking,’ where food stores allegedly pay cash to low-income individuals at reduced rates in exchange for their food-stamp benefits, which the stores then redeem at full value with the government. The Argus Leader asked the USDA for information on government payouts on a per-store basis for more than 300,000 retailers that participate in the program.”

A decision is expected before the Supreme Court ends this session in June.
KC's View:
I understand FMI’s position in this case, but my worry is that this is the beginning of institutional hostility to the very notion of freedom of information. I worry about that, and the ways in which an anti-press ruling - which I completely expect SCOTUS to hand down - could be applied and extended in future cases.